- Go back to school to study data science and hire myself out (for cheap) to non-profit organizations
- Go to art school to study drawing, painting, and art history
- Open a gallery/studio in San Miguel de Allende Mexico
- Create a foundation that would offer grants to queer POC to study/train in whatever they want
- Did I say “Retire” already?
Thank you to the conference organizers who invited me here to speak to you today. I know that standing in front of an audience and self-deprecatingly confessing that “I’m not the right person to speak” can feel disingenuous, particularly from someone who is speaking to you from the privilege of being an invited guest. But there’s a big part of me that still feels this way. While I’m here, I’m going to have a chat about barriers, about failure, and about how being a “problem child” could quite possibly be the best thing that could have ever happened to me professionally. And I’ll also talk about how, in the face of all of this, I managed to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places.
Before I go any further, I am required to make the following statement: I am appearing here today as myself. I am not representing my employer in any way. For as long as I have this platform, there is no association between me and the organization that signs my paycheques. I am unfettered by anything but my desire to keep a regular paycheque, all the while understanding that this compromise places me in a difficult position.
This Ask Metafilter thread about some recent changes to Google’s search results has me thinking about a post I wrote six years ago. I moved away from Google for email, search, and document creation, and I offered suggestions on how you might make a similar move. At the time I recommended using DuckDuckGo, something I still recommend, but not always as enthusiastically as I have in the past.
There’s a simple reason for that: after almost six years of nearly daily use both at home and in the workplace, I still find myself using Google as a fallback search engine1, primarily because of how I use search engines. When I turn to a search engine, I’m primarily trying to answer a question or choose between the best options for a product I’m interested in buying. The kinds of results that these two search companies produce can be very different, and I’m not just talking about how Google (now) includes favicons in search results. Let’s take a look at a few screenshots.
Have you ever given any thought to the difference between a job and work? If we have a regular daily grind that we are rewarded financially for, in conversation we blithely say “I’m going to work” without taking the time to think about what that really means. I believe that having dissatisfaction in one of those areas (a job) doesn’t have to mean dissatisfaction in the other (work). Here is how I differentiate between the two:
A job is a series of tasks, usually directed by someone who holds a position of greater authority than your own. These tasks are intended to help an enterprise reach a certain goal. A job is a regular position that, if you’re lucky, comes with some sort of remuneration.
Work, on the other hand, is a thing that occupies your time, incorporating your interests, the things you love, and, if you’re lucky, will guide you toward a more fulfilled sense of self. Work is produced when you exercise your creative muscles, your curiosity and intelligence toward some sort of output that grounds you. This output centers you and helps you understand your place in the world.
I am thinking about this in the context of my professional life and my own feelings of inadequacy/feelings of failure. What I have one to understand is that as long as I use my job as the sole or primary performance indicator, I will never measure up. In a system that is designed to privilege a very few, I am incapable of fully being the person I am. If I can’t fully be myself, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to give my all to a concern that, by design, is not intended to benefit all people.
What I have learned to do instead is to find work — things, experiences, and connections — bits of effort that produce items that bring me pleasure. I choose to engage in this type of work because it makes me happier and more fulfilled than a job ever could. I had to learn to divorce remuneration from measurements of success, because my mental, physical, and emotional well-being are far more precious than the number on my bi-weekly pay advices.
Perhaps this has been obvious to you for many years. I won’t beat myself up for not figuring this out sooner. I’m just happy that I’ve stumbled on a new definition of success that doesn’t leave me wanting.
A few things I’m thinking about today:
- How often I see words or phrases like “positive energy” in library job descriptions
- How frequently I have heard the refrain “respectful workplace” used to squash critique
- The effect of forced positivity from library leaders on lower-level library workers and their trust in leadership
A couple of things I’ve encountered online recently are making me think about this even more. In what ways do library managers who insist on a culture of positivity create barriers (interpersonal or structural) for their staff?
Food for Thought:
Susan David’s 2017 TED talk on emotional courage:
Toni Morrison’s essay “The Source of Self-Regard”, but especially the section on how elision and indirect language used in slave narratives contributes to people’s assumption that the treatment enslaved people endured was ‘not that bad’;
Slave narratives were very much like nineteenth-century novels, there were certain things they didn’t talk about too much, and also because they were writing for white people whom they wanted to persuade to be abolitionists or to do abolitionist type work, did not dwell on, or didn’t spend a lot of time telling those people how terrible this all was. They didn’t want to call anybody names, they needed their money, so they created an upbeat story.
I’m thinking about the silences and the shaming I’ve endured in the last 12 years in this profession, and I’m thinking of what it has cost me.
More to come.
It took me three years to read Beloved. I tried on my own as a college sophomore but couldn’t handle it. It wasn’t until I took an African American Women’s Literature course, taught by the then president of the Toni Morrison Society1 that I was able to make it through. I was surrounded by my contemporaries, led by an older, wiser Black woman who helped me see the gutsiness, the sheer defiance and love it took to call that which is most reviled Beloved. I could never have learned that lesson from a white woman (or a white man, for that matter).
I am thinking today, on the occasion of her death, of how Morrison emphasized Blackness and centered Blackness in her work, daring to call Blackness universal when the world tells us in no uncertain terms that we are the margins, and therefore strange. Unworthy. And I am thinking of the beginnings of stories, of essays, of keynote speeches that have gone unwritten because at their heart they’re about Black people but because I could not whitewash those words and make them palatable to a white audience, I thought I was a failure.
(I am also thinking about how many of my story ideas came from dreams where Black people could set things on fire with their minds, and I chuckle, but I digress.)
My upcoming keynote in Australia has vexed me for months because I received the advice that I should try to make it universal. And I couldn’t. No matter how I tried, I could not get away from the pain, heartache, and self-doubt this profession has caused me, a Black woman, and others like me. Keynotes are supposed to address solutions, they’re supposed to set a tone. My tone is righteous(?) anger, and a desire to tell anyone like me to abandon the idea of universality. Do it for yourself. Do it for US. Let the rest burn.
I will set them on fire with my mind and I will not apply salve to their burns. And as things burn and are destroyed, I am also creating a path forward for others like me. That’s what my instructor did for me with Beloved. And that’s what I’ll do for others.
- Dr. Carolyn Denard at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA ↩